LMU on the rise, but schedule doesn't help

Loyola Marymount is the trendy pick to challenge Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference, even receiving one first-place vote in the preseason coaches poll.

But the Lions are not yet in a position to realistically make a run at the WCC title as the season fast approaches. And the nonconference schedule almost locks the Lions into having to win the league tournament in order to earn an NCAA tournament berth.

LMU finished 18-16 last season (7-7 in the WCC) and returns two preseason all-WCC players in Vernon Teel and Drew Viney. But injuries in the preseason haven’t been kind to the Lions, and there isn't that sense that they are truly ready to challenge the Zags -- yet.

Edgar Garibay, the Lions’ 6-foot-10 redshirt freshman from Compton, has been hampered by a knee injury. LMU coach Max Good said Garibay had the same surgery as Purdue’s Robbie Hummel and is now being even more cautious after seeing Hummel go down with his second ACL injury in eight months.

“It’s weighing on him,’’ Good said of Garibay’s left knee ACL injury. “It’s psychosomatic. He’s working his tail off and he wants to play. But he practices one day and then another he doesn’t. We’re not pushing him.’’

Good said Garibay gives the Lions an inside presence. Without him, they don’t have much of one.

Nigerian 6-8 freshman Godwin Okonji, who played at Findlay College Prep in Nevada, has been bothered by a nagging groin and hamstring injury. Viney has had a back injury. Garibay, Viney and Okonji all sat out a scrimmage against Washington over the weekend.

“We’re going to have to go small,’’ Good said. “We’ll be short and athletic. We need Garibay and Godwin to boost our size and athleticism.’’

The only other players taller than 6-7 on the roster are redshirt junior Tim Diederichs (6-9) and of course the 6-8 Viney, who Good said ultimately will be fine for the start of the season.

“We’re going to be deeper,’’ said Good of the host of guards. “We’ve got good freshmen and a really good little [5-8] guard from Waterbury [Conn.] in Anthony Ireland.’’

The Lions did knock off a depleted USC last season and also took out Notre Dame in mid-December. And the biggest victory for Good during his tenure was taking down Gonzaga at home in mid-February (Saint Mary’s swept LMU).

But it might be premature to anoint the Lions as the next Saint Mary’s, supplanting the sharp-shooting Sweet 16 Gaels from a year ago. SMC did lose Omar Samhan in the middle, but the guards return led by Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova and should be able to shoot themselves into plenty of wins in the league.

The schedule might be as much of a concern as the lack of size for the Lions. Good said his assistant Jason Levy worked tirelessly to get better nonconference games, but to no avail. The schedule is soft and won’t help LMU get an at-large bid. The only power-six school on LMU’s schedule is Florida State on Dec. 18. The game is a result of Good’s relationship with FSU coach Leonard Hamilton and the fact that the Seminoles will be on their way to Hawaii for the Diamond Head Classic.

The Lions are in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Tip-Off in Springfield, Mass., but not in the main draw and don’t play headline team USC, instead drawing Dowling College and Rider. To be fair, going to the MVC’s Bradley will be a tough game (but with little power-rating return) and battling Big West contenders such as Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara make budget sense and will be tough tussles.

A home-and-home with South Dakota was a must since Good said the Lions couldn’t get enough games. They also have home games against Seattle, Cal Poly, Sacramento State, Morgan State and La Sierra. That’s why Good said he’s hopeful he’ll get a quality game in the BracketBusters event on Feb. 19. But even that might not be enough to push the Lions across for a possible at-large.

“We tried to schedule anybody, even just go there,’’ Good said. “We tried. It was either take home-and-home games against South Dakota or not get a schedule.’’

Obviously you can’t compare LMU’s schedule to the national schedule of Gonzaga, which probably put together the toughest slate in the country. Saint Mary’s wouldn’t be a fair comparison either since the Gaels have been a tournament team of late (St. John’s at home, at SDSU, at Vanderbilt, at New Mexico State, Mississippi State in Las Vegas, Texas Tech and then BYU or South Florida in South Padre).

But compare the Lions to similar WCC teams and it’s not close. Santa Clara plays at USC, takes on Arizona and Ohio (upset Georgetown in the NCAA tourney) in Las Vegas and has a home game against Washington State. Portland plays Kentucky at the Rose Garden, goes to Washington and hosts Saint Louis, Nevada and Utah.

So expect improvement from the Lions this season. There's plenty of talent on hand and Max Good has the program on the rise. But to get back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since the memorable 1990 run, LMU likely needs wins against Florida State and Gonzaga and quite a gaudy record. Anything less and the WCC tourney would appear to be the only route.